Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler is a melodramatic piece of filmmaking that sidles up to interesting but ultimately plops itself squarely on the lap of mediocrity. I feel this despite good performances by Forest Whitaker as the eponymous character who was butler to seven presidents, Oprah Winfrey as his loving though neglected and boozy spouse and David Oyelowo as their elder son, who rejects his father's seemingly ineffective obsequiousness for a more radical path. The rest of the cast includes some solid Hollywood actors -- Cuba Gooding Jr. as the White House chief butler, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ -- who don't seem to know what to do with their parts and I wonder if they understood what the movie's ultimate message is. I'm not sure I can tell you.  Maybe it is contained in the scene that features Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King Jr., who describes the importance of the American domestic in challenging stereotypes about blacks as lazy and undisciplined. It's a good scene with resonance but does not offset the film's weaknesses.
The script by Emmy-winning scribe Danny Strong relies on ironic juxtapositions of events to piece together the story of the American Civil Rights Movement as seen by Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, a fictionalized version an actual longtime White House butler. It follows Gaines from the cotton fields of Georgia -- where his mother is raped by an overseer and his father shot dead by the same man --  to luxury hotels where he must endure serial assaults from bigots who see him only when they're seeking affirmation from a good Negro. I don't know that this man's story (as worthy as it is)  -- much less the story of revolutionary change in this country -- can be told in 140 minutes without resorting to some unconvincing and annoying tropes. But it would have been interesting to see someone try.


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